We’re a reflective bunch, the Plays for Presidents crew, that is. Even though we’ve not coordinated our efforts, each blog contributor seems to have composed one or more posts to answer the question, “Just why am I doing this?” Andy recently discussed his affinity for history and Genevra looked at the Festival through the lens of her daughter. While I gave a nod last week to looking at election coverage through the lens of my dog, it’s really not the same, even for a childless 30-something. I think it’s time for something a little more personal…and less canine.
Talk points and the point of talking
At the risk of violating a Plays for Presidents taboo, I am going to declare my political affiliation. It’s not because I am pushing an agenda, but because it’s important to this story.Re: the political spectrum, I am to the left of center.
Growing up, my views on the world were greatly shaped by music and comedy. Two of the single biggest influences were folk singer Phil Ochs and stand-up linguist George Carlin. One attribute that their work had in common which attracted me was that, while they were both part of the left counterculture, one target for some of their most pointed satire were the very people whose identified with their ideas. One of Ochs’ finest polemics, for instance, was the song “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” a withering critique of armchair liberals who were “ten degrees to the left of center in good times; ten degrees to the right of center when it affects them personally.” In his own words, the song was “a lesson in safe logic.” As for Carlin, well, who wasn’t in his sights for the last two decades of his career?
The harsh words of Carlin and Ochs would have applied to me also, and this made their art irresistible. I have the total liberal pedigree – New York, Jewish, elite education, the whole nine yards. Also, I know I can be a hypocrite when my politics conflict with my comfort. Hypocrisy is nothing to brag about, but it is also, importantly, nothing to deny. To deny it is essentially to make dialogue with those who disagree with you untenable. I believe, and these words and beliefs are my own and do not reflect any official stance of Plays for Presidents, that without accepting the fact we are all fallible and, at times, hypocritical, we cannot have honest discussion about politics, justice, life, whatever. I hold fast to people like Carlin and Ochs because they are always calling me out and keeping me honest.
OK, so what about the play? Political discourse seems to be getting increasing intractable and unfruitful. I find this endlessly frustrating because I kinda like the Enlightment and the power of reasoned discourse. It’s the ideal behind democracy. But as we note in our latest P4P ad, what we instead have is noise on all sides. Many take comfort in the echo chamber. All over the political spectrum, people watch and listen to those who reflect their views and reduce opposing views to sound bites. By making politicians, policy makers, and activists into snippets, we are left with ideas and voices that are less than what they should be. In essence, to deny people – all people, citizens and leaders alike – their context is to deny them the fullness of meaning. Without meaning, dialogue is impossible.
With this play, I see an opportunity do right by ideas and voices and, ultimately, history and the future. It’s a small step, but a good one. In telling the stories of leaders as people, we have the power to redimensionalize them, to give them back some of their context. This is always a selective act, I know. History and biography, narrative and theater, fiction and non-fiction, they’re all subjective. We can’t be the only ones trying to delve into our history, but if we can be part of an effort to understand our history and place within it more richly, then I am all for it.
It funny/poignant/gripping/entertaining/worthy because it’s true
Like Founding Father Andy B., most of the plays I have worked on have been rooted in the real world, be it history, anthropology, religion, etc. This is no coincidence. Andy actually introduced me to dramaturgy (the discipline as well as the word) when he asked me to help out on his play A 60-minute History of Humankind in 2003. In the nine years since then I have researched, written, photographed, and generally mucked about in all manner of minutiae for six different plays, but it was only in 2009 that it dawned on me why it’s so fulfilling.
The last play I worked on began with a vague request, “Evan, can you find me a play that was a huge failure between 1910 and 1929?” When I recount this, I always note that we thought I’d find something like Springtime for Hitler, the failed failure from The Producers. Appropriately I failed at that. What I found was the longest-running flop in Broadway history. The play was The Ladder.
Ultimately, The Ladder was secondary to our play, Chalk and Saltwater. The story of The Ladder was where the payoff was. To give a thumbnail, that story included: a quirky millionaire/philanthropist/rubber plantation innovator/oil tycoon, The Tonys, the famed Algonquin Circle, the world’s largest BBQ, improbably immunity to snakebites, America’s richest painting competition, a stage melodrama that has run for three-quarters of a century in Vicksburg, MS, lullabies written for dead infants, unused war plans to stop the Kaiser, and a mission from God, to name a few. When something new popped up about the play or the people who made it, we often just laughed because the wealth and weirdness of the stories was almost obscene.
What finally dawned on me should have been obvious: history is an inexhaustible, incomparable resource. From a question asked nonchalantly backstage at a show, we were lead to a treasure trove of stories that we never in a million years could have fabricated from our own imaginations, let alone gotten an audience to believe. It was magic, I tell ya. History yields magic, and, love them or hate them, the lives of our leaders are no exception. Nor will it ever be.
So, that’s what I’ve got. On the one hand, endless irritation with political discourse, and on the other, boundless optimism about the stories we will always be able to find if we take the time to look for them. And so I am pleased as punch to serve as you Secretary of Research.